In Other Words: “Should I Tell My Friend’s Husband That She’s Having an Affair?”

I thought this letter, published in The New York Times yesterday, was a strong complement to this morning’s DW column around ethics and extramarital affairs, and I wondered how you might answer it:


I am a man (if it matters) and friends with a married woman, ‘‘Jane,’’ and her husband, ‘‘Peter.’’ The friendship is more with Jane than with Peter. Jane and I have known each other for years and work in the same profession, and I knew her before she married Peter, and I am closer to Jane. But Peter has become a friend since the marriage. Peter and I share some typically ‘‘male’’ interests and occasionally ‘‘bro bond.’’ Jane and I are quirky ‘‘intellectuals.’’

Jane is having an affair with ‘‘Martin,’’ whom Jane has known most of her adult life. I know about the affair because Jane confided in me years ago. In fact, this affair was also a part of Jane’s previous marriage, and Jane confided this to me as part of her divorce from her first husband, whom I did not know. Jane thinks Martin is her true life’s ‘‘soul mate,’’ and I think she may be right. Peter does not know about the affair. If he knew about it, I think he would divorce Jane in a minute.

Jane and Martin likely will never be together. Martin is married with children, and he lives in another country, and neither Jane nor Martin can change countries — it would end either person’s professional career. Martin visits the United States once or twice a year on business, and during those visits Jane and Martin spend a weekend together, usually in a hotel. Jane lies to Peter when this happens; she tells him she’s away on a business trip.

I don’t judge people’s sexual lives, and I’m very liberal philosophically. I’m less comfortable with adultery, because it involves lying, but usually I don’t feel the need even to have opinions about other people’s affairs. Recently, I found myself lying to Peter about Jane’s affair. Just casually at dinner with the two of them, the subject of Jane’s ‘‘business trip’’ came up, and I was unexpectedly faced with either chiming in with Jane about her trip or blurting out about the affair or awkwardly excusing myself. Jane said something like, ‘‘Did you get the pictures I texted of the Golden Gate Bridge?’’ and I knew she had not been in San Francisco. ‘‘Yes, they were great,’’ I said.

What should I do? If I continue to be friends with Jane and Peter, I end up in some small way lying to Peter, who is also a friend. But I am not going to tell Peter about the affair — that’s not my role. If I distance myself from them, I feel like I’m just taking the ethical path that ‘‘keeps my hands clean’’ but doesn’t do anything positive. What use is that?

And probably the strangest thing is, deep inside, I think the affair may be good for everyone. Jane and Peter have a good marriage, and Jane needs this outlet with Martin. Maybe just allowing the lie to roll forward in perpetuity is the best thing.

But I sometimes conjure the following: Peter finds out after many years, his marriage is destroyed, he is deeply hurt and he says to me: “You knew about this the whole time? You helped her lie to me about this for years?” I don’t know what I would say. Name Withheld

You can read the columnist’s reply here. I completely agree with his well-thought-out answer, and would only add that the LW downgrade his friendship with Peter from “bro bonding” to more of an acquaintanceship sans any bonding. I think remaining friendly to, but not necessarily with, Peter (and there IS a difference), will go a long way in easing the LW’s internal conflict. He’s friends with Jane. His loyalty is with her. As long as his behavior reflects that, he can feel better about withholding information from Peter that would likely hurt Jane very much and probably irrevocably damage his friendship with her.

What do you think? What would you do if you were in the LW’s shoes or what would you advise him to do?

[Illustration by Tomi Um for The New York Times]


  1. It’s one thing for Jane to confide in her friend and expect him to keep her secret. And, I definitely think the LW should keep the secret and not tell Peter. It isn’t his place to do so. However, I think Jane crossed the line when she went from confiding in her friend to putting him in a position to actively participate in her lie by “backing up” her claim to have been in San Francisco. The LW should tell Jane that while he is comfortable respecting the confidences of their friendship, he would ask the she respect his desire to not be in the awkward position of being used as a cover up for her affair and forced to lie to someone – regardless of whether they are a friend of his or not – for her. That makes him “culpable’ in Jane’s lies, as opposed to just respecting her confidence, and it is not an appropriate position for him to put her in.
    As an aside, I’d also ask Jane why on earth she got remarried when her affair with her star-crossed “soulmate” had already cost her one marriage and she had no intention of ending it. That’s incredibly selfish and a horribly unfair thing to have done to Peter.

    1. eelliinnss says:

      Completely agree that Jane should never have put LW in that position. How incredibly selfish and arrogant. That act alone would make me pull back from the friendship.

      1. Yeah, Jane doesn’t seem like the kind of person I would really want to keep close. I don’t think everyone who cheats is a no-good-horrible-very-bad person, but someone who goes into marriage with zero intention of being faithful, but fails to disclose that to the person they’re marrying because they know it would be a deal breaker, is an asshole. That the same someone would readily discuss her years’ long affair with her “soul mate” behind her husband’s back and then expect her friends to come sit with her husband in their house and lie to his face over dinner about her affair just emphasizes that this woman is not someone that I’d care to know.

  2. I’ve spent a ton of time thinking about this situation because I’m currently in the same situation with my friends. My good friend “Lana” has been cheating on her husband “Jake” for about a year with several different guys. Currently she’s sleeping with a guy who’s also married and is enamored with him, but I think it’s pretty one-sided.

    She confided in me about all of this and says she knows she’s being a terrible person, but has taken no steps to better the situation. I’ve tried just being the supportive friend, and I’ve tried the tough love, get-your-shit-together-woman approach, and nothing seems to sway her. Lana and Jake definitely do not have an open marriage.

    She’s always been a good friend to me, and I’ve spent a ton of time with her and her husband the past couple of years. But he’s my friend too, and I’m feeling increasingly guilty for having this knowledge without him knowing.

    It’s not my place to tell him anything, and I know he’s not completely ignorant – they’re visibly unhappy and I’m sure he knows something’s up, but probably not the extent of it.

    So even though I don’t plan to tell him, I feel guilty hanging out with them. And her behavior bothers me so much that I don’t want to hang out with her and hear about it, so I’ve distanced myself. I can’t really do a full fade out because we are in the same tight knit social group (she has told two other girls and they feel the same way I do).

    Basically, this post is in no way really helpful except to say that I know EXACTLY how this guy feels. And I don’t look forward to the day that Jake asks me if I knew the whole time.

  3. Wow. Is everyone having an affair? I’m in the same situation with a friend of mine. Friends with her husband but obviously not as close a friendship – though I also have a business relationship with her husband as well. She is starting an affair and has used me as her “excuse” to get out of the house even though I told her don’t do it; stop seeing the other guy; fix your marriage or leave; think of your kids. Everything falls on deaf ears. All this coupled with the fact that she is a horrible liar this is definitely going to blow up. I will be having that conversation of “how could you” with the husband and my business will take a hit. And since my friend knows I am not supportive of her side action she is avoiding me. No win no win. Has disaster written all over it.

    1. I know you’re not writing in for advice but honestly, if it’s doomed to come out and will actually negatively affect your business, I think it’s fair to try to head that off by telling the husband yourself or giving your friend an ultimatum to come clean (and then informing the husband, if he asks). Consider cutting off the friendship because anyone who’s actively putting you in the middle of it (particularly when you’ve said no) is not a good friend.

  4. Alluding to another letter, perhaps she has an unspoken arrangement with her husband /s.

  5. Like an Oprah giveaway: “Affairs! Affairs for everyone!”

    I think the original columnist did a pretty good job of being evasive, not answering the question, and pretty much going, “Huh, that is a problem. Sucks to be you.” I like Wendy’s suggestion of downgrading the friendship. In this situation, I would also talk with Jane about not putting me in the middle of it and in a situation where I need to actively lie. It’s one thing to know about what’s going on (which is uncomfortable enough, and I don’t think I could even handle that), but to be put on the spot to directly lie to the husband’s face and cover? Nope.

  6. artsygirl says:

    Obviously the LW was uncomfortable by the long standing affair, but the tipping point was when Jane made him an active participant in her lies. Jane needs a good telling off to – beyond making other people culpable to her deception, she is apparently just an all around shitty person. Her affair destroyed her first marriage and is likely going to destroy her second as well as ruin this friendship. As Miss MJ said above, she got remarried with no intention of being faithful. Seriously how selfish and cruel can you be? If I were the LW I would end the friendship and remind Jane that karma is a bitch.

  7. Jane crossed the line pulling LW into her lie. LW needs to tell Jane that and that while he may keep her secret, he will not allow her to pull him into another lie again. So cut it out! Yes his loyalties are with Jane but those loyalties dont involve sinking to her level so she may continue to get boinked by some overseas floozy. Honestly…

  8. If it were me I would just tell my friend flat out that while I will not be ratting her out, what she is doing has caused me to lose respect for her, both the affair and trying to pull me in with her. I would tell her that her husband is good to her and loves her and that it is hard for me to watch her deceive a person who is also my friend. That if she had any respect/love for me, her husband AND herself should would cut the shit out and work on building some integrity.

  9. Sorry Wendy, you blew this one. Peter signed on for a monogamous relationship, not a “my wife boinks her soul mate a few times a year behind my back” relationship. I’d tell Peter the truth and find a better friend than Jane.What she’s doing is not OK and can’t be weaseled around by citing Iris Murdoch.

    1. You are wrong and Wendy is right. It is not the letter writer’s duty to morally police his friend. However he can opt out being a party to the deception.

      1. I personally think there’s no clear-cut solution, but I would agree with you that there’s no moral duty to inform the friend.

        Also, it’s just that, in practice, telling somebody their SO is cheating on them almost never goes over well. Doing that would be like dropping a bomb both on their marriage and the friendships he has with these people. I guess there are situations where one could do this (especially if one never had to interact with the people involved again afterwards), but in most cases it’s too risky.

        Personally, although I would want to know if I were Peter, I can understand why people don’t want to tell (and I say this as someone who has been Peter, found out long after the fact and really hated that everyone besides myself seemed to know about the affair).

  10. dinoceros says:

    It’s one thing to let you friend know it’s happening, but it’s a different story if you are trying to force them into lying for you. I’d tell her that if she used me to try to hide the affair again, I wouldn’t go along with her and would answer honestly. As in, “No, I didn’t get your photos.”

    In terms of being worried that the husband will be mad if he finds out the LW knew all along, eh. People get mad if you meddle, people get mad if you don’t meddle. If someone is going to take out their anger at their spouse on me, when I was already put into an awful situation, then so be it. If they want to end the friendship over it, it’s on them, not me.

    1. Excellent. could not be said better.

  11. People like this are why marriage doesn’t mean shit to most people and why partners can not be trusted. You’re scum. You’re that shit that accumulates on the side of your mouth after talking to much , you are and should feel like absolute trash,Jane and Martin. I hope your other halves catch you both and takes you to the cleaners in court and if you have kids, and if there really is a hell, burn there after you die. Assholes

  12. bittergaymark says:

    Eh, just example after example of failed monotony…

    1. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

      A good marriage isn’t monotonous.

      1. I’m assuming this was an autocorrect from “monogamy” 😉 I don’t view it as failed monogamy though – rather Jane is not even trying to be monogamous.

      2. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

        I think BGM is trying to say monogamy is monotonous and causes people to cheat and we should all just be willing to have marriages with sexual relationships on the side. He doesn’t think monogamy is realistic. In this case the woman should have found a partner who wanted an open marriage. She found a partner who wants monogamy and went into the marriage with the intent of cheating on him. Maybe she wants a partner who is monogamous while she isn’t. I think the thrill of cheating is part of the appeal for her and an open marriage wouldn’t give the thrill because it wouldn’t be forbidden. I don’t think she wants an open marriage, she wants to cheat because it is what her ego wants.

  13. I had a friend just like “Jane” (including the part about meeting up once or twice a year, only my friend actually deliberately planned a stay abroad with her fiancé so she could be close to her lover for a while) and ultimately I ended the friendship.

    There were a lot of issues other than her cheating on her fiancé. I started to realize that the cheating was just one expression of a problematic personality. In my former friend’s case she had told a lot of people about her cheating ways, but as far as I know her fiancé still never figured it out (although he came close and may have been willfully blind to some extent) – so I can confirm that people like “Jane” indeed exist. I truly don’t need them as friends.

    1. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

      I don’t need people like this as friends either. As you said, it is a sign of a problematic personality. I think it tends to be a person who is more self-absorbed and narcissistic than empathetic. When they tell people about their affair I think they get a thrill out of the telling just like they get a thrill out of the affair. It appears that the affair is even more fun if more people know about it. The fact that she also tells him that the affair partner is her soulmate is a way of humiliating her husband who she is in essence saying isn’t her soulmate.

      1. I hadn’t given much thought to the soulmate comments yet – but you’re right, this makes it even worse. Actually my friend made similar comments about her lover, she was really just like “Jane”. I also got the vibe from her that she found it thrilling to discuss her affairs with other people. It took me an awfully long time to realize just how toxic she was. She was very charming.

      2. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

        Charming is a narcissistic trait. People tend to describe narcissists as charming until they get to know them in depth. It is also a trait of sociopaths. They are quite adept at manipulating people with charm.

      3. artsygirl says:

        I imagine she is using the ‘soul mates’ label as a way to justify her affair. She views Martin as her TRUE LOOOOVE and therefore in her mind it is completely excusable to sleep with him despite both of them being married. In truth, if they truly loved each other they would not be in other committed relationships.

      4. RedRoverRedRover says:

        I was just thinking the same thing. If I truly thought someone was my “soulmate”, and they felt the same, I’d make it work. Their other excuse is that they would lose their careers? Please. You can have a career in another country too. Of course it won’t be as easy, but if it’s literally between having to rebuild your career, and being with your soulmate, who picks their career?
        They’re just two people who like to bone. They’re not soulmates. Please.

      5. Also, her husband would probably be devastated that his wife thinks of somebody else as her soulmate (even if it’s total BS used to justify an affair). I would be.

      6. RedRoverRedRover says:

        Exactly. And why would she even marry the poor guy if she already had a soulmate? I would have serious issues being friends with someone like that. I think I would have had to break off the friendship when she got engaged.

  14. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

    I’d distance myself from Jane. A friendship with her can’t bring much good into your life but it has tremendous potential to bring ugly drama. If she is having an affair she should keep it to herself. The fact that she likes to tell the LW about it is ugly. She likes to include him in what she is doing. She is getting something out of telling him and I’m assuming he gets nothing out of it. She sounds self-absorbed and narcissistic. The person who lies to their spouse the way she is will lie to anyone. The person who doesn’t consider their promise of monogamy as a real promise isn’t a friend who will be honest with you. When her husband is making comments about her trip he sounds suspicious. I doubt he trusts her at this point. If I had been put on the spot the way he was, when asked about the pictures I would have said I didn’t receive them. I will not lie to help someone else lie. My integrity is mine and I don’t let anyone use it for a lie. This LW needs to distance himself from Jane. He may have been friends with her for longer than her husband but her friendship is turning toxic and no one needs toxic in their life.

  15. Monkeysmommy says:

    I suspect hubby is already questioning Jane, that’s why she drug LW into her lie, to try to validate her story.

    I can’t see how this affair is good for everyone; Peter would be devastated, and I bet Martin’s wife would as well. Martin isn’t Jane’s soulmate. He is a man she has idealized in her mind because she doesn’t have to fold his underwear or pick up his dirty socks. They roll in the hay twice a year, and move on with life. If they faced day to day reality together, Jane would probably not say the same things she does now.

    All in all, Jane sounds like a selfish and manipulative person, and I would dump her as a friend altogether.

  16. There’s some pretty specific info in the original letter, I wonder if Jane or Peter will read it.

    1. Some people were speculating whether the letter was an elaborate way of making Jane’s secret known. 🙂

      1. Oooh…that would have quite the update!

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